Avani Kumaon renews traditional textiles with renewable energy

Avani is contributing to the overall sustainable development of communities in Kumaon through the promotion of handmade textiles and solar technology.

This section on Ethical Fashion is made possible with the support of Bhu:Sattva

The intention was simple; to bring about a positive, qualitative change in the rural life of the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand. Yet, the results were dramatic.

Nearly 23 years ago in 1992, Rashmi Bharti and Rajnish Jain moved from Delhi to Kumaon with the idea of working with the mountain communities, understanding their needs and bringing an improvement in the quality of life of people living in these remote areas.

Rashmi Bharti and Rajnish Jain

Rashmi Bharti and Rajnish Jain

Today, Avani, their voluntary organization has contributed immensely to the social and economic development of rural communities. Dissemination of solar technology in these hills, promoting handmade naturally dyed textiles and creating farm based livelihood opportunities in the community, water resource management, providing health care and micro finance for the rural communities are just few of the things Avani does.

With their efforts they have reached out to more than 100 villages with different programs. Almost 20,000 families have been positively impacted by their work. In the textile initiative alone, they work with 1100 artisans in 52 villages in the Kumaon region. The contemporary products created by these traditional artisans have been showcased at several international fora and exhibitions like the Ethical Fashion Forum in London. The products have also bagged certifications like the UNESCO Seal of Excellence, CRAFTMARK, and SILKMARK.

The Alternative speaks with Rashmi Bharti to know more about this initiative.

Ushering change in  remote communities

“We were looking for a change in our lives and wanted to live and work in the Himalayas. We made this shift to simplify things for ourselves,” says Rashmi when asked about the move to these remote mountains. They established Avani in 1997 to improve the life in rural communities. For the first three years, Avani started out as a branch of Barefoot College, Rajasthan running the Kumaon Chapter of the Centre. In 1999, Avani, this community NGO was formally registered.

A young woman assembling a solar lamp.

A young woman assembling a solar lamp.

Where there is light

“Our first point of intervention with the village communities was household lighting with solar energy. The production and supply chain of electricity in the mountains is unreliable. So we started out by first electrifying our office with solar power and then trained rural youth to manufacture solar lights. We established a solar manufacturing unit in the villages,” says Rashmi.

They also created a community system to collect money in a community fund for the maintenance of these services.” A service has no value unless it is paid for,” explains Rashmi.

But they observed that very poor families could not pay even a token amount of Rs. 30 for these services. “That is when we realized that increasing the income of very poor families is the foundation to improving lives,” says Rashmi.

Branching out to textile production

Most of the local families were dependent on land for sustaining themselves and the traditional artisan community in the region relied on spinning and weaving, producing handmade woollen products for the local market. The income earned was meagre and men frequently migrated out of these regions in search of paid employment.

To enhance the families’ income, Avani first interacted with 20 families who were traditional artisans well versed in hand spinning and weaving of Tibetan sheep wool. “The idea was to start building our capacity as an institution, reaching out to these families and developing a sustainable livelihood option in the villages, thereby empowering the rural communities,” says Rashmi.

Avani then got involved in product development, improving the quality and design of these handmade woollen products and also connected artisans to diverse, more lucrative markets.

What began as an income generation program, today has become a sustainable business founded and operated by the local artisans themselves under the banner Earthcraft – a Kumaon Self Reliant Cooperative facilitated by Avani in 2005. Earthcraft products include shawls, stoles, mufflers, home furnishings, and garments for men, women and children. They also produce organic detergent, organic kumkum, and eco friendly art supplies from natural dyes. Another product line that the cooperative is establishing is the production of colourants from locally available plants in the form of powders that can be used by different units for textiles application, cosmetics or even art supplies.














Tackling social issues

This project created a social impact too.

“What we saw was that in these remote villages, young girls were not sent to school after their secondary education. If the schools were far away and if they had nobody to accompany them, they dropped out of school and began awaiting  marriage. At whatever age a groom was found, they were married off,” says Rashmi.

Avani began working with this group of young women, introducing for them skilling and vocational training programs and slowly they became full time weavers.  “For over 14 years now, they are earning a steady monthly income of Rs. 2000-3500, paying off their own dowry, and contributing to household expenditure. Parents have now simply forgotten about marrying their daughters early.” says Rashmi. As a result, without any direct intervention, the early marriage issue of these young girls got resolved.

Empowering socially vulnerable women

Their work has also benefitted women abandoned by their husbands, widows and also the physically challenged. “Some of them were simply thrown out of their homes without any compensation. Lack of access to adequate legal support often does not allow the women to reach out to authorities who can address their plight,” says Rashmi.

Avani started working with them, training them in weaving skills. “Most of them have been with us for more than 12 years. They have become financially independent, educated their children, have married them off and are also contributing to the construction of their own homes,” says Rashmi smiling.

One small ecological step

“We are using green energy for all our production processes. For many years we have used only solar energy in the form of solar powered spinning wheels and calendering machines for all our textile production”, says Rashmi. Quite recently they have started producing electricity using pine needles, converting an abundantly available resource into energy in a completely sustainable manner.

“We harvest rain water which is used for natural dyeing. The waste water is 100 percent recycled and is then used for irrigating our campus,” says Rashmi.

“All the textiles and garments we produce are sustainable because of the processes we follow and the revival of  traditional skills of hand spinning and hand weaving. We only work with natural fibres like wool, silk, linen and a little bit of cotton. Till last year we were also growing silk. We have introduced spinning and weaving of silk, trained artisans in these skills and converted silk into garments” says Rashmi.

Promoting plant based, natural dyes

Avani believes in producing quality garments from eco-friendly dyes. “The natural, plant based dyes that we use do not pollute the soil or the water. At every step we ensure that the next generation can continue the craft without polluting the natural resources they depend on,” says Rashmi. After a lot of research and development Avani has identified many valuable plants in the Kumaon region. “80 percent of the plants like turmeric, marigold, Myrobolan, and pomegranate that we use for dyeing grow in the surrounding areas. These plants are grown and collected by women’s groups, providing an additional income source in the villages,” says Rashmi.  She adds, “We continue to produce a range of natural colours for textiles, art supplies (crayons, water colours), cosmetics, wood stains and kumkum that are nontoxic, safe for the children and other users.”

Avani has promoted hand dyeing in around 50 villages of Kumaon and wish to replicate this model in other regions of the Himalayas too.  “We strongly believe that the mountain community can become self-sustaining by focusing on their traditional crafts of hand spinning, hand weaving, natural dyeing and the cultivation of dye yielding plants.”

Going chemical free

At their institution, soap nut powder is used for washing clothes and utensils, house cleaning, toilet cleaning, and even as hair wash.” Soap nut is so amazing that you actually don’t need anything else. Imagine how much effluents we could decrease if we were to rely on such natural, organic products,” says Rashmi. So Avani has been marketing soap nut as a biodegradable, zero-waste all-purpose cleaner and they have plans of introducing a liquid detergent and an all-purpose body wash next year.

Strikingly different from a commercial factory based plant

Rashmi describes the supply chain for textile production. “Our sheep wool comes from the Nepal border some 150 kilometres away, and is cleaned, sorted and distributed to our five weaving centres located in the villages of Kumaon. Our production centres are decentralised; we did not want to displace the artisans and wanted them to find work close to their homes,” says Rashmi. They work with some very remote villages that are often 30 minutes to four hours away from the nearest road head.

The wool is hand spun at these centres and the yarn comes back to the main Avani centre where it is naturally dyed. “Water scarcity is a problem in all the villages. So, to meet the needs of the natural dyeing process, we harvest more than seven and a half lakhs of rainwater every year,” adds Rashmi. The yarn is dyed and is retunred to the five centres for weaving and then sent back to the main centre.

“It takes about seven hours to reach the nearest train station from our centre. Very often, raw materials and finished products travel on horseback. So this business is totally different from an urban factory based plant”, explains Rashmi.

“Avani’s focus has always been on integrating local skills, local people and local resources in contiguity with appropriate technology that resonates with the lifestyle of the mountain community. If it increases our cost, so be it,” ends Rashmi.

All images courtesy Avani.

The Sustainable Fashion Hub is a series that examines shifts in the the global fashion industry to more sustainable and ethical practices and processes, with a special focus on India. It explores what goes into creating a just and sustainable fashion value chain – from the creation of garments and lifestyle accessories to making them available to consumers. All content on the hub is produced with 100% editorial independence by The Alternative. 

The Hub is supported by logo, India’s first certified organic designer apparel brand. With products that are directly sourced from organic cotton farmers at fair trade terms. Bhu:Sattva® uses natural colours, vegetable and herb dyes and goes further to work on reviving various forms of traditional weaving and handloom. Information on its products and processes can be found at http://www.bhusattva.com


Usha Hariprasad is a freelance writer. She is fond of travelling, discovering new places and writes about travel related destinations around Bangalore at Citizen Matters. more


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Usha Hariprasad is a freelance writer. She is fond of travelling, discovering new places and writes about travel related destinations around Bangalore at Citizen Matters. more

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